‘No room for human error’: Prince William Co. to launch automated public safety assessment tool

WTOP's Shayna Estulin on Prince William County, Virginia's new public safety assessment tool.

When a person is charged with a crime, it can take months before a trial begins — now, Prince William County in Virginia is preparing to launch a new tool to help judges determine if the person can safely be released back into the community in the meantime.

The Public Safety Assessment (PSA) Tool uses nine factors to weigh the risks of pretrial release, including age, prior felony and/or misdemeanor convictions and if the person has a history of failing to show up to court.

According to a press release, the PSA system is entirely automated and has “no room for human error.”

Judicial officials, however, can also consider outside factors, such as employment and mental health needs. Prosecutors and defense attorneys will also be allowed to weigh in.

“People who are released pending trial have lower recidivism rates overall, and likely, a better outcome at the trial,” Prince William County Criminal Justice Services Director Steve Austin said in the release.

Austin said the PSA tool had a predictive success rate ranging from 85% to 89% in the approximately 285 jurisdictions where it’s in use.

He said it took two years of research and discussions with treatment providers, social services, police, prosecutors, judges and defense attorneys, among other invested groups, before the tool was launched.

“We invited stakeholders to various meetings. We looked at data, and based on those conversations, we decided those areas that we wanted to work on to improve the system,” Austin said.

The PSA tool is also being launched in Richmond, Staunton, Waynesboro and Augusta. The Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services will study the data from the pilot program to determine if the tool should be rolled out across the state.

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Shayna Estulin

Shayna Estulin joined WTOP in 2021 as an anchor/reporter covering breaking news in the D.C. region. She has loved radio since she was a child and is thrilled to now be part of Washington’s top radio news station.

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